The following correction was printed in the Guardian’s Corrections and clarifications column, Tuesday November 28 2006:
In the article below, we use “cross” and “crucifix” as though they are interchangeable terms. They are not. The controversy is over Nadia Eweida’s desire to wear a simple cross. A crucifix is a depiction of Christ on the cross.
Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, has frequently felt powerless before a divided and troublesome congregation. Yesterday, however, he proved he was a force to be reckoned with when he joined the row over whether a British Airways check-in worker could openly wear a crucifix on a necklace at work.
Speaking in Rome yesterday, where he has been seeing the Pope, Dr Williams said that consultations had begun on a possible disinvestment of BA shares. A few hours later, faced with the possible sale of the church’s £10.25m shares in British Airways and the lingering possibility of a boycott, the nation’s flag carrier suddenly announced a review of its 34-page uniform policy, saying that it had been “unfairly accused” of being anti-Christian.
Dr Williams spoke with fervour, declaring that, if the airline felt the cross was a source of offence, then he himself would find that “deeply offensive”.
The church’s Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG), which advises the church’s investment bodies, contacted BA shortly after Dr Williams’s comments and sent a letter to chief executive Willie Walsh requesting a meeting.
John Reynolds, the EIAG chairman, said: “I think this [shows] that the church does have a voice.” He is is pressing ahead with the meeting, which will help decide whether the Church’s investment bodies will be advised to sell their shares.
Even though Mr Reynolds cautioned that disinvestment was “the ultimate sanction”, and “very rarely used”, the fact that the head of church was speaking so openly about the matter appears to have forced BA to review a policy that does not allow necklaces to be worn.
Nadia Eweida will hear next month the outcome of a second appeal against the company’s decision that she cannot openly wear a crucifix on a necklace at work. Ms Eweida, aged 55, has refused to go back to her job at Heathrow Airport.
Mr Walsh did not suggest that she would be able to wear her necklace, but said: “Our staff has suggested that we allow the wearing of religious symbols as small lapel badges. This will be considered as part of the review”.
Dr Williams is not only leader of the Church of England, but also of the 77 million-strong worldwide Anglican community. If the Church of England sold its shares – small in comparison with the ?5.6bn stock market value of BA – it might have a passing effect on BA’s share price.
But an Anglican boycott could seriously damage sales and angry customers had been contacting the airline.
Asked at a Rome press conference if he would support a boycott, Dr Williams noted the dispute had erupted after his own flight to Rome on BA had been booked. “I have a responsibility for the proper use of the resources of staff and money and reorganising at short notice expensively and complicatedly didn’t seem to me a responsible use of them”, he said.
But then he added: “I’m actually consulting with others in the Church of England about our whole attitude to BA in which, as you know, we have some financial investment.
“And that’s a question that’s already been raised for discussion with the church commissioners in London.”
The church owns around £10.25m shares through its church commissioners body, which owns £9m, and the pension fund which owns £1.25m.
He had earlier spoken passionately about the issues at stake. “People of any faith should have the right to display the signs of their faiths in public,” the archbishop said.
“What I find deeply confusing about the present situation is the response of British Airways, which doesn’t seem to make it clear whether they’re simply talking about regulations concerning a piece of jewellery, or whether they are in some sense claiming that the cross is a source of offence.”
A large pastoral cross around his own neck, he went on: “If BA is really saying, or implying, that the wearing of a cross in public is a source of offence, I regard that as deeply offensive and, in a society where religious liberty and the expression of religious commitment is free, I regard it as something really quite serious.”
The archbishop said that if, however, the airline were saying the case of Ms Eweida was a health and safety issue, “I would question if that is a sensible kind of response and whether there really is a problem.
“I would ask them to look very seriously at this considering the enormous amount of trouble and dismay this has caused in the Christian community.”
In Rome, a top Vatican official wholeheartedly backed the archbishop of Canterbury’s position. But the Roman Catholic archbishop of Westminster, cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, was reluctant to threaten retaliatory moves.
Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, who also flew BA to Rome for the archbishop of Canterbury’s visit, said he was wary of attacking the firm if genuine health and safety issues were at stake. “I don’t want to come in heavyweight or condemn BA if they don’t want to offend Christians”, he said.
Sitting beside Dr Williams was Cardinal Walter Kasper, the German head of the Vatican department that looks after relations with other Christian denominations. He said: “I fully support what the archbishop has told you”.
Dr John Sentamu, the archbishop of York, who had been outspoken in his criticism of BA’s decision, said last night: “Amen. This is excellent news for Nadia, BA and society as a whole … The cross is not just a piece of jewellery, it is a sign of the love of God displayed in Jesus Christ.”
As for Dr Williams, he had clearly decided to make the best use of his time in the air. “It is just perhaps worth noting with some irony”, he said, “that amongst the duty-free jewellery items for sale are some crosses.”
From Thatcher to Ryanair
For a company calling itself “the world’s favourite airline”, BA has attracted a remarkable number of enemies. Moans on everything from sniffy staff to lost luggage are scattered across the web, but the most memorable clash was with Margaret Thatcher.
She was outraged when BA dropped the union flag on its tail fins for a variety of focus group-approved designs. In 1997, when she spotted a model with the new livery at a Conservative party conference, she tucked a handkerchief neatly around it to cover up the fin, snapping: “We fly the British flag, not these awful things you are putting on tails.”
In 1993 commercial competition escalated into an expensive legal punchup when Virgin’s boss, Richard Branson, sued John King, then chair of BA, for libel. BA settled out of court and Sir Richard divided his ?500,000 compensation among the staff as “the BA bonus”.
Michael O’Leary, the boss of Ryanair, who, to be fair, hates all other airlines, said: “We want to beat the crap out of BA.”